Philippine Catholics swarm Black Nazarene statue hoping for miracle

Catholic devotees surround the Black Nazarene statue as it is taken on procession to mark its feast day in Manila, Philippines, on Jan 9, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MANILA (AFP) - Swarms of barefoot believers thronged a revered icon of Jesus Christ on Thursday (Jan 9) in Manila for a slow-moving and raucous procession considered one of the world's largest shows of Catholic fervour.

As the sun rose, hundreds of thousands of faithful were packed along the route for the annual procession of the so-called Black Nazarene, which they believe grants miracles.

Devotees clamber over one another to touch the life-size statue, wipe a towel on it or even just lay a hand on the ropes attached to its metal float.

"We believe that if you pull the carriage, the Lord will cure all your diseases," 50-year-old vendor Boyet Lara told AFP. "Nothing is impossible if we believe."

Scores of the barefoot faithful pass out and suffer cuts or bruises in the crush around the statue, and in previous years, believers have died in Catholic-majority Philippines.

"In 2016, the rope pulling the statue wrapped around my head and I nearly choked to death. But I managed to survive," said devotee Crisostomo Belarmino, 52.

"I cried that time and said 'Thank you Nazarene for giving me another life'," he added.

Just hours into the procession, the Red Cross reported giving first aid to some 300 people, in line with previous years.

The statue is named for its charred appearance and is accompanied by many difficult-to-prove stories, including that it survived a fire while en route to the Philippines in the 17th century.

Critics call the procession a mish-mash of superstition and unnecessary risk for the scores of people who cram the procession route each year.

However, the defenders in the Philippines' powerful Catholic church note that it is a vibrant expression of faith.

Many devotees swear the Black Nazarene has brought them help when they needed it most.

"When my husband suffered a stroke two years ago, even if I didn't ask for financial help, I got it," vendor Angeline Mara, 43, said.

"Every time I hear the song for the Nazarene, I feel like I'm about to cry," she added.

Though the authorities did not report any specific threat to this year's procession, there was a typically massive presence of thousands of police on Manila's streets.

The Philippines is plagued by violent insurgencies, including militants linked to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria that have carried out bombings on civilian targets.

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